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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

  • Help end world hunger
  • Saturday, August 04, 2007

    ENERGY SOLUTIONS: To Nuke or Not to Nuke

    Recently I had a painful exchange with a few reasonable nuke advocates and a whole slew of arrogant nuke shills over at Daily Gotham. The message from both the reasonable and rabid was: we are all going to die unless we embrace nuclear energy NOW! NOW NOW! Some of them were quite nasty in delivering this message, denegrating renewables in the process. Others were more reasonable and calm in delivering their message.

    I think they are wrong, at least in the almost worshipful, faith-based way they speak of nuke energy, and the disdainful, pitying way they discuss renewables. They seem about 20 years behind in what is happening in the renewables field, and they take the worst case scenarios when dicussing renewables and the best case when discussing nukes. And they claim some kind of special scientific experise...some have even called me scientifically illiterate. Well, those who know me know how dumb that accusation is, so I don't feel the need to address it. But what I do want to address, once again, is what SCIENTISTS are saying about solving global warming in the SCIENTIFIC journals. To me this is what matters when it comes to making decisions about our future.

    The last time America had any kind of real concerted push for renewable energy was during the Carter Administration. Since Reagan, we have either taken great steps backwards as a society, or we have had piecemeal attempts to encourage change. But basically we have remained addicted to fossil fuels and that is a horrible, horrible thing for America. It puts us at the mercy of fundamentalist nations, pollutes our cities and has been a big chunk of what is causing global warming, since America alone contributes about 25% of greenhouse gasses (though China and India are growing alarmingly in their contributions).

    Had we listened to Jimmy Carter, we'd still have a problem, but we'd be far closer to handling it.

    But we didn't. So we have, according to the more optimistic estimates, about 10 years to mitigate global warming's effect on our society. Now some of us have been advocating for action for 20 years, so to be at the point where we have to say "I told you so, why the FUCK didn't you listen" might be nice if it wasn't for the fact that I look in my son's eyes and know that whatever we do from now, his life will be much harder than it needed to be because our generations failed and our leaders failed.

    Sometimes it is hard to look my son in the eye when I realize we are still having to fight for the changes that Carter tried to lead us into.

    Now, there are still global warming deniers out there, fools that they are. I am not talking to them. I can refer them to hundreds, if not thousands of diaries, including this statement from the Union of Concerned Scientists, this statement by a military think tank, and this diary I wrote addressing the Denial Lobby. I will also add this from an abstract from the most recent issue of the scientific journal Nature where the author indicates the overwhelming evidence for human-caused changes in the climate and adds to our knowledge (go to Nature to see the whole article with references. It is a subscription site, but you can find it at most university science libraries): (referencing left in intentionally)

    Human influence on climate has been detected in surface air temperature1, 2, 3, 4, 5, sea level pressure6, free atmospheric temperature7, tropopause height8 and ocean heat content9. Human-induced changes have not, however, previously been detected in precipitation at the global scale10, 11, 12, partly because changes in precipitation in different regions cancel each other out and thereby reduce the strength of the global average signal13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19...We show that anthropogenic forcing has had a detectable influence on observed changes in average precipitation within latitudinal bands, and that these changes cannot be explained by internal climate variability or natural forcing. We estimate that anthropogenic forcing contributed significantly to observed increases in precipitation in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, drying in the Northern Hemisphere subtropics and tropics, and moistening in the Southern Hemisphere subtropics and deep tropics. The observed changes, which are larger than estimated from model simulations, may have already had significant effects on ecosystems, agriculture and human health in regions that are sensitive to changes in precipitation, such as the Sahel.

    Enough with the Denial Lobby. They are idiots and it is just a shame that the Republican Party listens to so many idiots.

    Now, on to solutions.

    I have been reading about global warming and possible solutions for about 20 years now. Coincidentally, I have been a scientist for a similar amount of time, counting my first entry into a lab at Salk Institute, San Diego, where I worked on regulation of bacterial genes. For those who know about such things, I found that the spacing between the "negative 35 promoter region" and the CRP element in the LacZ gene affected expression of the gene such that both distance and geometry of the DNA were important. Back in 1995, during my first post-doc, I remember reading an issue of Scientific American discussing energy in America. Two things were highlighted above all else: increased efficiency and wind power. The potentials of these two things were powerful even in 1995. All other ways of dealing with global warming (and remember, much of the scientific community had already accepted global warming back then!) were still fairly speculative in 1995. But energy efficiency was a HUGE open opportunity to save both energy and money, while the wind potential of the Great Plains states alone could have, even back then, helped to make us energy independent. That was 1995. One can only assume that we have advanced since then, Bush Administration denials to the contrary.

    And discussions I have had with people who have worked with farmers and wind energy tell me that the potential even outside the Great Plains is pretty good, though certain not perfect. Farmers are slowly adopting wind generation as a major part of their income, given that it is extremely hard for small farmers to make a living just growing food. Wind energy helps American farmers, could help our manufacturing sector, and helps provide both jobs and energy for America. And yet I have heard nuke shills call wind power mere "tinkertoys." Well, Scientific American (back in 1995) and American farmers have more respect for wind energy than the nuke shills.

    The Feb. 9th 2007 issue of science largely starts from the exact same place Scientific American left off in 1995: energy efficiency and wind power are here and now with other technologies being more speculative. Both push nuclear energy a little, but with caveats that seem even stronger in 2007 than in 2005. The main differences between then and now are a.) the weight of scientific consensus about the need to cut carbon emissions is greater, and b.) the focus on solar energy and biomass is greater now than it was then. And nuclear, though still mentioned, seems to be considered less of an option now than then.

    Here is a summary of the issue of Science in the issue’s introduction:

    Lewis (p. 798) points out that the direct conversion of sunlight with solar cells, either into electricity or hydrogen, faces cost hurdles independent of their intrinsic efficiency. Ways must be found to lower production costs and design better conversion and storage systems. In the short term, utilization of biomass relies mainly on sugar fermentation; Goldemberg (p. 808) discusses how Brazil's use of ethanol from sugarcane has greatly reduced its need for imported oil. Many long-term goals have been set for biomass utilization; for example, the European Union (EU) hopes to produce a quarter of its transportation fuels from biomass by 2030, as discussed by Himmel et al. (p. 804). Better ways are also needed for processing the available sugars, and conversion to higher alcohols or even alkanes is desirable. Stephanopoulos (p. 801) explores the options afforded by reengineering biosynthetic pathways in microbes.

    How we tackle energy problems will turn on a number of policy issues. Potocbrevenik (p. 810) discusses how the EU is setting targets and allocating funding for alternative energy. Finally, Schrag (p. 812) explores the feasibility of sequestering carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel use and our technological readiness and willingness to implement such schemes.

    The News section profiles national lab directors, computer modelers, captains of industry, and bench scientists who are writing the early chapters of the next book on energy research. Some of them are developing better plants to grow as fuel or ways to convert them into ethanol. Others are developing catalysts to extract hydrogen from water or generate electricity from hydrogen. What they all share is a desire to find new ways to power the future.

    The main reason we have done so little since, say, 1995, is that there has been little political will to push for alternatives. Wind energy, a way the Great Plains states could be energy exporters and American farms can make extra money, has only recently started picking up in the US. Had we started in 1995, the influence of Saudi Arabia could have been greatly reduced, American farmers would be in a better financial situation, and the economy of the Great Plains states might be booming. This has been a huge missed opportunity. Though the nuke shills may still refer to wind as "tinkertoys."

    But wind is not featured much in the Feb. issue of Science. It is too much today’s technology, what we should have started pushing 10 years ago. In essence, it is seen as a given. Scientists are, of course, more interested in the future.

    One of the most striking things mentioned in this issue of Science is a graph of the energy flow in the US from production to usage. Slightly more than 50% of energy produced in the US is wasted. Now NOTHING is ever 100% efficient, so energy efficiency cannot double our output even if half of our energy we produce is wasted. But clearly this is one place we can make some real, meaningful changes. And possibly save money in the process. The article that shows this graph mostly discusses the long-term, large scale challenges we face if we are going to mitigate global warming, but for me this diagram was the most dramatic part of the article.

    Nuclear is only covered in two articles, one proposing a new, supposedly “safe” nuclear technology based on thorium. This is a proposal focused on Norway since Norway has one of the world's largest reserves of thorium. The idea seems to be considering developing an altogether new technology. This new technology would not use enough fuel to sustain a chain reaction, thus eliminating the worst dangers of nuclear power: the Chernobyls and TMIs we have faced in the past. Waste is “expected to be low,” but exactly how low and what could be done with it is not discussed. What is interesting is that nuke shills keep telling us that nuke power is absolutely safe...so why does this article, aimed at scientists, still talking about making things safe? Suggests that the current technology is not as safe as nuke shills are telling us. Honestly, I just wish nuke advocates would be up front about these things. Nuke may have a role, maybe even a strong role, to play in getting beyond fossil fuels, particularly in places like India and China that are not going to be as concerned with green energy so much as fueling their economy as rapidly as possible. But the fact that the shills and advocates seem to distort the truth compared to what I read in Scientific American and Science and Nature really makes me wonder what else they are hiding.

    Solar is covered in a few articles, including a new technology using a gallium arsenide-based solar cell developed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado and being used in the Negev desert in Israel. It is estimated that this technology, if used on a large enough scale, can reach 40% efficiency at converting sunlight to electricity and can achieve what is considered the magic number of $1000 per kilowatt of electrical capacity that would be needed to make solar competitive. Another article suggests a technology that could cut the cost of producing solar cells by as much as 75% using a modification traditional silicon based technology.

    Many articles cover biofuels. One article covers the intersection of agriculture and energy, how farmers can make money growing the fuel for biofuels. It is proposed that small farms could produce crops such as the grass Miscanthus for local biorefineries, which would produce local energy. I should note wind power already provides a way in which small farmers, but placing turbines on part of their farms, can make more money than if they grow only crops. This is partly because of the very unfair way in which crops are purchased by large agribusiness, providing farmers with almost no profit. But it also indicates that there really is a good market for locally-produced wind energy.

    Other articles discuss the use of genetically engineered microbes and plants to produce biofuels more efficiently. “Genetic engineering” is a term that worries many, and there are dangers that require regulation. But genetic engineering is not inherently dangerous and if proper regulation is in place it is a powerful technology. Genetic engineering is part of what I have been doing for 20 years. But when it is done on a large scale, as in agriculture, safety measures must be in place to prevent environmental spread of the genetically engineered organism. If this is done, the potentials described for boosting biofuels could be enormous.

    This is simply a brief overview of SOME of what is covered in this excellent issue. I recommend going to your local University science library and tracking it down. It is a rich source of information on the current scientific thinking regarding energy issues.

    BBC news has a recent article on IPCC recommendations for global warming solutions. Remember, IPCC represents a large number of our best scientists and is privy to the cutting edge science.

    Some excerpts:

    The growth in greenhouse gas emissions can be curbed at reasonable cost, experts at a major UN climate change conference in Bangkok have agreed.

    Boosting renewable energy, reducing deforestation and improving energy efficiency can all help, they said.

    For the record, renewables, forests and efficiency are what I have been pushing for years. Some past articles I wrote include this on forests, this on light bulbs, and this rather controversial one on reforestation. But that is just a sampling.

    Back to the BBC article:

    Many technologies can play a role in cutting emissions, the IPCC says; but it singles out the building sector as a potential major contributor, and energy efficiency as something that "plays a key role across many scenarios for most regions and timescales".

    Nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, where emissions from fossil fuel power stations are captured and buried underground, could play important roles; but with nuclear, "safety, weapons, proliferation and waste remain as constraints".

    Now, here is where some nuke advocates will jump in: nuke "COULD play" an important role. Except they would change it to "MUST" play an important role. I suspect it is somewhere in the middle. I suspect that it will have to play some role, hopefully not too large, but again India and China will likely take the nuke options. I will also note that scientists are still bringing up all those pesky safety, security and waste issues that nuke advocates and shills try to tell us are all solved and we don't have to worry our pretty heads about. Again, I wish they would just be honest about the risks. Scientists are! By not admitting the risks and limitations, nuke advocates are doing us AND themselves a disservice.

    The article ends with a quote from a representative from Friends of the Earth UK:

    "By introducing measures and investment that will stimulate sustainable renewable energies and energy efficiency, governments can help to achieve cuts in global emissions by 50% by 2050. Without this, we face devastating consequences."

    A version of the IPCC report aimed at policy makers can be found here. In it, BOTH nuclear AND renewables are presented as part of the solution. Many of the nuke advocates say "sure, we support renewables" but then they don't give it any place in their stated plans, instead giving the lion's share to nuke and denigrating renewables as near useless. But this isn't really how the IPCC report reads to me. Nuke and renewables seem to both be given solid roles in what we need to do. Energy efficiency is given a MUCH larger role than nuke advocates seem to give it, at least when they discuss details. Some statements that nuke advocates would downplay in their obsession include:

    It is often more cost-effective to invest in end-use energy efficiency improvement than in increasing energy supply to satisfy demand for energy services. Efficiency improvement has a positive effect on energy security, local and regional air pollution abatement, and employment...

    Renewable energy generally has a positive effect on energy security, employment and on air quality. Given costs relative to other supply options, renewable electricity, which accounted for 18% of the electricity supply in 2005, can have a 30-35% share of the total electricity supply in 2030 at carbon prices up to 50 US$/tCO2-eq ...

    Climate change policies related to energy efficiency and renewable energy are often economically beneficial, improve energy security and reduce local pollutant 35 emissions. Other energy supply mitigation options can be designed to also achieve sustainable development benefits such as avoided displacement of local populations, job creation, and health benefits...

    "Renewable energy" (for immediate implementation) is defined in the report as including "hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal and bioenergy." Renewables for implementation by 2030 are defined as including "tidal and waves energy, concentrating solar, and solar PV."

    Among the things the nuke shills do is lump together all bioenergy under biofuels, applying all problems with biofuels (which are avoidable if care is taken) to other forms of bioenergy, like biomass. They also assume all forms of tidal (which often I hear used to include wave) is the same, which it is not.

    So scientists approach this problem the same way I do. Start with forests (preservation and reforestation and management), alternative energy (using a broad approach including renewables as much as possible and nuke as needed, keeping in mind the limitations and dangers) and energy efficiency (perhaps the FIRST priority since it can be implemented faster and to more effect in the near term, though the other methods are also critical). Carbon sequestration is controversial and seems like a half-assed solution, but has to be considered if needed. Nuke shills approach it by dismissing renewables altogether, calling them "bioFools" and "tinker toys," showing their lack of understanding of the approach scientists are taking, and saying ONLY nukes can save us. Nuke advocates are more reasonable, but even they relegate forests, efficiency and renewables to a tiny part of the solution and gush over how nukes will be 90% of the solution. Don't be fooled. They may well be right in recognizing that nuke energy, particularly when you think of global solutions, will be a likely PART of the solution. But don't let them tell you it has to take the lion's share of our attention and money. Be open to nuke power because it may be a necessary evil. But don't let them tell you the bulk of what scientists are telling us to do is just "tinker toys." If they tell you that, they are either lying or ignorant.

    For some more info, I recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) website, though nuke advocates say they exaggerate the risks of nuke power.

    UCS on Clean Energy

    UCS on Global Warming solutions

    UCS on what YOU Can do

    And, the page nuke advocates disagree with, UCS on nuclear safety.

    And for those who want something they can do right now:

    FIRST: just switch to compact fluorescent bulbs! The light may not be perfect, but it saves gobs of energy AND money. Our energy bill went down by one third when we switched. It really works!

    SECOND: Lobby banks and financial institutions to STOP INVESTING IN COAL POWER PLANTS! Urge them to start investing in the future, not the past. Go here for this action alert.

    You can also help through organizations like Trees, Water, People. Do carbon offsets through Native Energy (this is what both Al Gore and Democracy for America do).

    If you have your favorite action you want to tell us about, please put it in the comments.


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